The best ghost stories are the ones that play out primarily in the mind--it's the uncertainty, the not knowing whether something is really real or not that sends shivers down the spine. The ghosts in Johan Theorin's The Darkest Mind (Nattfäk) are palpable, but you won't hear them wandering about rattling chains. These are ghosts that one carries about in their memories wrapped in grief and longing. Theorin's novel has been very deservedly shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger and combines elements of a traditional mystery with those of a suspenseful thriller tightly wound around a ghost story.
This is a story that grabs you from the first page and doesn't let go, revealing its many intricate secrets slowly. Theorin has a real knack for creating atmosphere. Many a time I would set the book down and wonder at the eerie feeling he evokes in great part through this island setting. A pair of lighthouses built in the mid-1800s and a manor house with an unusual history serve as the focus for the story. A place built to guide those in distress to safety holds many secrets of past inhabitants whose lives often ended in tragedy (life being in general a messy affair under the best of circumstances), thus the place bears witness to much human suffering perhaps storing up the energy of so many. Combine place with the natural elements--a forest of trees delineating a boundary on one side and the powerful sea on the other. Over the course of the story fall turns to winter and a once seemingly peaceful vista turns brutally cold and the sea grows more and more tempestuous.
It's to this place, Eel Point, that the Westin family comes. Joakim and Katrine, a successful and happily married couple with two young children decide to buy the now dilapidated manor house and leave the hustle and bustle of the big city behind. After living in a series of homes, renovating each, then selling for a profit, they can afford the manor house and its outbuildings. It's not a clean break from their former lives, however, as they bring with them emotional baggage and perhaps a certain amount of culpability for events that occurred surrounding the death of a family member, which they'd like to leave behind them.
The island may appear idyllic, but it's not so far removed from problems that plague big cities. Öland is a popular destination for summer visitors and many have second homes on the island, which sit empty for the rest of the year. The contents of the homes are plum pickings for two petty thieves from the mainland who have an inclination to converse with the dead through their Ouija board and a bored islander looking for a little excitement. The fun always begins with a little intoxication thanks to crystal meth, and while the break-ins are harmless enough at the beginning they quickly escalate into violence.
A police presence is introduced onto the island in the form of rookie cop, Tilda Davidsson, who's trying to create a more amenable situation for a sticky relationship she's involved in. The island is also home to her grandfather's brother, Gerlof, who resides in a nursing home. She grew up not knowing her grandfather so she spends afternoons chatting with Gerlof and recording his stories to get a better sense of her family's history. Gerlof is knowledgeable in the island's history and folklore as well and will prove to be a source of information for Tilda as she tries to discover who is behind the break ins. She'll need whatever help she can get as she's strapped with a partner who's alternately indifferent and sexist, but she makes a decent go of her work.
As you can see there are several plotlines running at the same time, which at first seem somewhat unrelated but will culminate in a suspenseful ending bringing all the various threads together in ways that aren't always obvious until the final moments of the story. Interspersed with these different stories is the history of the former residents of the manor house at Eel Point from the builders onward. The story is complicated yet not confusing. Theorin is quite clever in how he deals with the themes of grief and loss and guilt. He wraps everything nicely together and keeps you on the edge of your seat at the same time.
The Darkest Room has won all sorts of awards in Theorin's native Sweden. Apparently this is the second of a quartet of books that will be loosely related to each other. I've already borrowed his first, Echoes from the Dead, from the library. I suspect this is an author that will bear keeping and eye on. I've tried to be purposely vague about what happens in the story as there is nothing worse than a thriller missing its thrills, but this is one I can easily recommend. It's definitely more substantial than your run of the mill suspense story thanks to its fine construction. If you still need a little more persuasion, take a look at this short film to get a sense of mood. Of course I haven't a clue what Theorin is saying, but the visuals are stunning and very, very eerie. It's easy to see where he found inspiration for his story.